Guarding the Three Treasures to health and longevity
Updated: Dec 29, 2020
For centuries, Chinese Medicine has viewed the body as a holistic entity that exists on three levels: matter, energy and spirit. Together, these Three Treasures – Jing (Essence), Qi (Energy) and Shen (Spirit) – allow us to enjoy vibrant health, joyful well-being and personal wisdom. Ancient sages including Laozi (founder of Taoism) and Confucius, as well as modern-day doctors of Chinese medicine, believe they represent the foundation of life. Balance and harmony among these three aspects of ourselves not only prevent dis-ease, but also promote peace of mind, abundant energy, strong immunity and emotional resiliency.
In brief, Jing is the deepest and most “dense” aspect of our energy. It governs the gradual processes of development and aging. Qi is the most refined aspect of our energy. It is the sum total of daily processes and functions within the body, including the transformation of food into energy, circulation of blood, elimination of wastes, and synthesis of proteins and hormones. Finally, Shen is the sum total of all the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects that define each of us as a person. It is most subtle of the Three Treasures.
Together, the Three Treasures demonstrate how the concept of a unified body-mind-spirit is woven into the very fabric of the Chinese medical system. It also highlights the emphasis that Chinese medicine places on healing the emotional and spiritual aspects of disease, not just the physical symptoms.
Jing – foundation of our physical life
Translated as Essence, Jing is the most concentrated or densely-vibrating energy among the Three Treasures. It is also the Treasure most closely associated with our physical body. Jing is the primal energy of life, closely associated with our genetic potential, ability to reproduce, and the overall aging process. According to traditional wisdom, the quantity of Jing determines both our life span and the vitality of the years we live. Jingis also considered to be the root of our creative energy and vitality – the physical substance out of which our life unfolds – governing our courage and will power.
Located in the lower dantian (loosely translated as our lower “energy center” or “elixir field”), Jing is associated with the Kidneys and adrenal glands. Robust Jing energy in the Kidneys allows us to lead a long and vigorous life, while the loss of Jing will result in physical and mental degeneration, premature aging, fertility issues, and loss of longevity.
The Chinese concept of Jing has strong parallels to Western medicine’s study of genes. Although the ancients did not possess the technology to identify DNA, they recognized that an important substance was passed from parent to child, and that issues with this substance could cause serious issues with growth, reproduction and development.
Jing can be divided into pre-heaven (congenital) Jing and post-heaven (acquired) Jing. Pre-heaven Jingrepresents what we inherit from our parents and plays a crucial role in fetal and early childhood development. Pre-heaven Jing can never be replaced once it is lost, but can be supplemented with post-heaven Jing, which is derived from food and herbs. Many of the best tonic herbs for healthy aging support post-heaven Jing.
Jing also serves as an emergency energy source that we can tap into when our day-to-day energy (Qi) is depleted. Unfortunately, the frantic pace of modern life means that many of us are regularly dipping into our Jing reserves. Jing is especially vulnerable to chronic stress, as well as overwork, excessive emotionalism, substance abuse, and chronic pain. Among men, excessive release of semen is said to diminish Jing, while excessive menstrual patterns, pregnancy and childbirth can dramatically drain Jing in women. Over time, excessive reliance on stimulants such as caffeine also harm Jing. Finally, a serious or long-term illness will deplete Jing.
Importantly, Jing is the basis of the other two treasures – Qi and Shen – so conserving our Jing is imperative for living a healthy, balanced life. According to Chinese Medicine, the signs of aging — grey or thinning hair, failing eyesight and hearing, and brittle bones — all signal the gradual depletion of Jing. Low Jing levels also lead to feelings of exhaustion, lack of motivation, and a feeling of having “nothing left to give.” If you are seeing these signs, especially prematurely (or feel chronically exhausted), it may be a sign from your body that you need to restore and protect your Jing.
Qi – essential vital life force
Qi is the life force that gives us our day-to-day strength and vitality. Every phenomenon in the universe is a manifestation of Qi – it is what separates living things from inanimate objects. It motivates our metabolism and immunity, and animates the movement of breath in our lungs as well as blood through the vessels.
Qi is produced from the air we breathe and the food we eat. This means that we need good quality food and air, and strong digestive and respiratory systems in order to produce Qi. The middle dantian is “home” to Qi, and it is closely linked with the Spleen and Lungs, as well as the Liver. Qi travels through the 12 primary meridians very much like blood moves through our vessels. Chinese medicine seeks to ensure that Qi is able to move freely, that it is moving in the correct direction, and that there is an abundant availability of Qi. When we are healthy, Qi flows smoothly. When it becomes blocked or stagnant, however, we will experience disease or disharmony. A lack of Qi flow can be seen at a physical level as aches, pains and stiffness, and at a mental or emotional level as mood swings and a feeling of being stuck. In my clinic, I see Qi stagnation (normally caused by stress) more than any other imbalance – it is an inescapable part of modern life. Learning how to regulate and balance Qi flow can help us remain xiao yao— translated as “free and easy”— a state of relaxed contentment, joy, and flow.
While western biomedicine does not recognize Qi as a substance of the body, it is a key concept within Chinese medicine. In classic Chinese medical texts, it is said that “human life depends upon Qi” and that “when Qi gathers, the physical body is formed; when Qi disperses, the body dies.” Indeed, every birth is a condensation and every death is a dispersion of Qi. Birth is not a gain, death is not a loss. In this sense, Qi can be likened to String Theory in quantum physics, manifesting differently depending on its vibrational quality.
As with any other substance in the body, Qi has specific functions, summarized as: moving, warming, defending, transforming and holding. It is the source of all movement in the body, it warms the body to maintain a normal temperature, it defends the body against invading virus and pathogens, it transforms food into useful substances in the body, and it helps to hold things in their proper places (for example, it keeps organs from prolapsing and contains blood in the vessels). While it is commonly said that “Qi is energy" this is a gross over-simplification of the myriad roles Qi plays in sustaining life.
Shen – spiritual energy that gives life meaning
Shen is the third of the Three Treasures, defined as the Spirit or Mind. It reflects the nature of our soul, the connection between our heart and mind, and our connection to the Divine. It encompasses our intelligence, emotions, and spirituality. The Shen not only allows us to think and discriminate, but it shapes our personality. Shen is the radiance that shines through a person’s eyes — the emanation of a universal loving-kindness, compassion, and enlightened power – a heart brimming with wisdom, forgiveness and generosity. Shen is our link with the eternal and our connection with the universe – while anchored in the body, it transcends time and space. Our Shen is what links us with the infinite, God, or the Tao, depending on one’s beliefs.
When Shen is strong and settled, we are calm, peaceful and wise. Alternately, a weak or unsettled Shen manifests as anxiety, depression, angst or lack of focus. Indeed, serious mental and emotional disorders are referred to as “Shen disturbances” in Chinese medicine. Interestingly, the Chinese character for Shen depicts an empty vessel. Only when we are empty of desires, worries, and negative emotions can we allow the light of the infinite to shine through and be aligned with the movement and flow of the universe.
Strong enduring relationships result from a healthy Shen. More than that, the Shen is responsible for our highest and purest goals and motives – love, compassion, generosity, acceptance, forgiveness and tolerance. Feelings of awe, majesty and wonder are signs of Shen engagement. When it is strong, we feel connected to the universal and timeless flow of life — we have a place and a purpose. Shen allows us to pursue our destiny.
Self-reflection, self-development, and morality all derive from Shen. If the Shen is weak, then these higher ideals are easily lost or clouded by fears, cravings, egotism and other lower emotions. On a more mundane level, but just as important, Shen is responsible for our mental processes, emotional equanimity and psychological integrity. When our Shen is strong and settled, we can be true to ourselves — characterized by mental and emotional strength, as well as a clear and penetrating vision. Shen is the vital part of every human life that ultimately represents our state of conscious awareness – our ability to think and form emotional responses.
While western biomedicine views the body and spirit as separate entities – cared for by separate professions (doctors for the body; psychologists, therapists, or religious leaders for the mind and spirit) – Chinese medicine believes Shen is an essential part of the human body. Disorders of the spirit-mind can cause illness in the physical body, and vice versa. Meaningful, lasting healing of any disease must address its physical, mental and spiritual aspects.
Many believe that Shen is the most important of the Three Treasures because it is the basis of our higher nature as human beings. Chinese masters say that Shen is the all-embracing love (peace, contentment, mindfulness) that resides in our Heart, located in the upper dantian. It gives us the ability to see all sides of an issue, and to rise above the world of right and wrong, good and bad, yours and mine. Certain Shen tonic herbs encourage the opening up of Shen while others act as “Shen stabilizers” to help balance our emotions. Shen tonics have been used for centuries by the great Chinese sages to help in their quest for enlightenment and harmony with Nature and all humankind.
Replenishing and restoring the three treasures
Jing, Qi and Shen can all be strengthened and protected through proper diet, herbal medicine, exercise, meditation and conscious breathing practice. In addition, it is imperative to avoid going to extremes with your energy; approach everything with moderation, get sufficient sleep, and maintain a regular meditative practice.
Maintaining vibrant, abundant Qi is crucial so that we don’t consume our store of Jing. Regular, deep breathing exercises, especially done in fresh air, are fundamental. Eating a high-quality, healthy diet will also help us cultivate robust Qi. Proper lifestyle habits, such as sufficient sleep also help restore Qi and preserve Jing. When Qi becomes blocked, we develop disease, aches or pains within the body. Qi stagnation can also manifest as mood swings, or feeling “stuck.” The practice of Qigong is especially effective to keep Qi flowing freely throughout the body.
Jing is the primal life force in living beings. A person with an abundance of Jing will most likely be healthy, strong and resilient, achieving great longevity. Unfortunately, Jing is depleted by life itself. All disease, minor or major, diminishes Jing. A heavy or acute stress can drain a large amount of Jing quickly, resulting in premature aging. This loss is known as "leaking." In turn, diminished Jing makes us more susceptible to disease, degeneration and general aging. All death is ultimately associated with the loss of Jing.
To live a long, vibrant life, is essential that we identify when and why we "leak" Jing and then change our lifestyle and habits to mitigate this loss. From a Taoist point of view, meditation, focused contemplation, the inner and outer exercises (Neigong and Qigong), diet and herbs can all play key roles to eliminate "leaking." Although acupuncture does not directly boost Jing in the body, it can harmonize the body in dramatic ways to help prevent leaking and to allow the body to restore Jing with tonic food and herbs.
The five primary organs (zang-fu) are all considered to be Yin because they store Jing. This includes the Spleen, Heart, Liver, Lung and Kidney. When the Yin organs enjoy an abundance of Jing stored within their tissues, they are healthy and strong. When functioning optimally, these Yin organs conserve Jing. They do not "leak."
Among the five Yin organs, the Kidney is the central and most powerful reservoir of Jing within the entire body-mind. Importantly, when we speak of the Kidney from a traditional Chinese point of view, this goes far beyond the anatomical kidney of western medicine to include: the structures and functions of the renal kidneys; the adrenal glands, both cortex and medulla, and their secretions and hormones; the reproductive glands, tissues and associated hormones; the skeletal structures, including the inner bone structure that houses, protects, nurtures and modulates bone marrow; the bone marrow itself, the source of stem and progenitor cells for the whole body throughout our lifetime; major aspects of the brain and mind; all the sense organs, especially our hearing and the tissues/organs that support these functions; and much of the functionality of the autonomic nervous system that controls fight and flight, courage and fear. When Chinese medicine focuses its attention on the Kidney, it is a priori focusing on maintaining, increasing and regulating Jing – and on stopping the leaking of Jing.
Any inflammation, for example, will cause energy and resources to leak from the body. This is because the body requires an enormous amount of energy to maintain an inflammatory response. Even a small inflammation like a pimple or eye inflammation can drain Jing. Chronic inflammatory conditions like gingivitis are silent Jing-leaks that take a high toll on our health over time. Excessive inflammation that is often associated with organ disease, traumatic injury or autoimmune conditions represnet a grave drain on Jing. Indeed, statistics show people with chronic inflammation die earlier than they would if they were inflammation-free, often by decades. Heart disease, Alzheimer's, cancer, diabetes and COPD all have a significant inflammatory component that drains Jing and shortens life.
Some of the most prominent anti-aging, longevity herbs from China are famous for their ability to constrain and eliminate inflammation. For example, Gynostemma (jiao gu lan) – an herb consumed by some of the longest-lived peoples on earth – is known to counteract dozens of inflammatory conditions, as well as chronic low-grade inflammation, now well-established to be a cause of aging and premature death. Gynostemma represses the activity of the universal inflammatory molecule in every cell of our body, known as nuclear factor kappa B (NFkB), and is often included within tonic teas to reduce “false fire” (ie: inflammation) and diminish leaking.
Emotions almost always play a key role in Jing loss as well. Modulating one's stress level is a primary key to mitigate "leaking." Chronic and/or acute stress promotes inflammation, adrenal hyperactivity, hormone imbalance, sleep disturbance, emotional upheaval and much more. Stopping the source of the excessive stress and taking measures to deflect and mitigate the effects of the stress are critical. Meditation, exercise, recreation, gratitude, and service to others all help reduce stress. Tonic and adaptogenic herbs can play a profound role in stopping leaking and replenishing Jing. Schizandra, Astragalus, Rhodiola, Ginseng, Gynostemma, Goji and Eleuthero are all profound adaptogens that can fundamentally improve our stress response and prevent the loss of Jing due to stress.
Yin Jing tonics (such as Heshouwu, Goji, Dendrobium, Ligustrum, Steamed Rehmannia, Asparagus root, Tortoise Shell and Schizandra) will quickly re-establish a baseline of Jing. Qi tonics are necessary for both vitality and protection, and the major Qi tonics are all capable of restoring energy, strengthening metabolism and respiration, and boosting the immune system on all levels. These include high quality Asian Ginseng, American Ginseng, Reishi mushroom, Astragalus root, Atractylodes, Eleuthero (Siberian Ginseng), Schizandra, Licorice root, Codonopsis and Dioscorea. Since most "leaking" almost always has an emotional and/or spiritual context, the great Shen tonics of Chinese herbalism must be considered as well. Reishi mushroom is king in this regard. Most Taoists throughout history would agree that Reishi stops leaking at both the Qi and Shen levels, and allows Jing to grow. Reishi mushroom should be part of every program to stop leaking and restore the Three Treasures. Once Yin Jing is partially restored, the moderate (gentle) Yang Jing tonics can be added to the restorative program. These would include: Eucommia bark, a remarkably effective Yang tonic that also has profound Yin Jing capabilities as well. Deer Antler is perhaps the most powerful Jing tonic of them all. Last, but not least in this discussion of leaking and restoration, are the astringent or "locking" herbs, admired by Taoists for stopping and preventing leaking of Jing. King among the locking herbs is Schizandra. It enters all twelve meridians, nurtures all five elements (thus the name "Five Flavor Fruit") and tonifies all Three Treasures. Other locking herbs include Cornus fruit, Ligustrum and Astragalus.
Tonic herbs can be categorized as Jing (Yin and/or Yang), Qi (Qi and/or blood) and Shen (opening and/or stabilizing) by virtue of which Treasure(s) they tend to nourish and develop. The value of an herb is a reflection of the Treasures it contains.
Jing provides us with a solid foundation, a deep balance and security, and keeps us strong and healthy as we age. Qi keeps our body and mind working on a day-to-day basis, giving us abundant energy, and keeping everything flowing and smooth. Finally, Shen gives us mental clarity and peace. Each of these elements are important aspects of a healthy, happy and fulfilled life, and one of the key lessons of the Three Treasures model has to do with the way these Three Treasures influence and depend on each other.
The Three Treasures can be viewed as a ladder or tower, with Jing at the bottom, Qi in the middle, and Shenat the top. Jing provides the foundation for the other two and life itself. Shen at the top requires strong Qi and Jing in order to be our best selves. This is not completely indifferent to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory from psychology, that talks about levels of basic human needs. Maslow’s Hierarchy assumes that we all have certain fundamental requirements, which if not met, stop us from expressing higher-order behaviors and ways of living. For instance, at the bottom level of the Hierarchy of Needs are the basic physiological needs of sustaining life (food, clothing, and shelter). If these aren’t met, then our entire focus is all about how to get them. If you’re starving, you won’t have much time or energy to devote to appreciating art, for instance. At the top level of Maslow’s hierarchy is self-transcendence, which means transcending the self for altruistic and spiritual reasons. According to Maslow, this is only possible once all the lower needs are met—physiological safety, love and belonging, and self-esteem. Once these needs are met, we are in a position to be able to be truly altruistic and explore higher spiritual dimensions of life.
This interpretation of the Three Treasures suggests that we need to focus our energy in the right places and build strong foundations first. If we’re struggling with spiritual (Shen) purpose, it could be because there are lower levels that we need to work on first. Are either our Qi or Jing weak or imbalanced? Maybe our struggle with too much stress or poor physical health is holding back our spiritual development? Looking at things in this way can help to put different aspects of our life into perspective. The question is: at what level is there a weakness or imbalance, and how can it be remedied?